Editor’s Note: Reporter Kiera Kaiser first introduced us to Malachi Suarez in April 2021 when she wrote about his efforts demanding his school district change the name of his elementary school. A year and a half later, Malachi’s fight came to an end as Central Unified made a decision to rename the elementary school.
On Tuesday, July 26, 2022, the Central Unified school board convened to discuss what has been an ongoing issue for students and community members in the district. James K. Polk Elementary will now be named Central Elementary, and the community is torn on this decision made by the CUSD board.
In early 2021, we were introduced to a young Malachi Suarez. As a fourth grader at Polk Elementary, Malachi created a petition to get his school renamed after learning that James K. Polk, who Polk Elementary is named after, was a racist and slave owner. This petition, created in April 2021, now has over 3,700 signatures.
Central Unified School District voted on changing the name of Polk Elementary. The question was, what did they plan on changing it to? The board created a poll for students, parents, teachers and community members to submit regarding what they thought Polk Elementary should be renamed.
Malachi and his parents felt as though the survey, created by the CUSD board, was “very limiting and not targeted to students,” as they felt it should have been, as well as “very rushed and last minute.”
On July 26, the board convened to discuss the results of the poll. The discussion of this decision started with public comments from over an hour’s worth of students, parents, and members of the public sharing their thoughts on the matter.
There had been a push to get Polk Elementary renamed after Margaret Mims, the Fresno County Sheriff. Mims is viewed to be consistently anti-immigrant, and has faced scrutiny for whether or not some of her actions in the courthouse violate state sanctuary laws.
The Suarez family felt as though this push for Mims to be the new face of Polk Elementary is an example of “how far the opposition [of the renaming] will go to prevent change.”
Malachi called on his community to vote for Moreno Elementary, named after Maria Moreno.
“Maria Moreno [is] the first woman farmworker hired as a union organizer,” Malachi said. “She used her voice to speak up for what is fair for everyone. She fought hard to improve the community, and she is a great American hero who we can all celebrate.
“[Maria Moreno] is fitting because Central is a farming community, and she represents the struggles of farm workers,” Suarez continued.
Unfortunately, it seemed to many members of the public that their input and the results of the survey didn’t matter.
The survey results showed “Polk Elementary” as the first choice by the public, dropping the full name of James K. Polk. In second place was Maria Moreno Elementary.
The board decided that shortening James K. Polk Elementary would not be the best choice for the school and voted on Central Elementary, a suggestion by one of the members of the board.
The meeting was put on an emergency recess after the crowd started to yell and chant, saying phrases like “white supremacy is what you support” and “representation matters.”
While Malachi was successful in getting the school board to change the name of the school, the board could have done more by changing it to something the community actually wanted.
“I am disgusted, but not surprised by their decision,” Malachi said. “The name Maria Moreno had overwhelming support while Central only had six votes, which was just five more than Malachi Suarez Elementary. Polk Elementary was not even an option, and the district should have informed the community of that.”
Incremental changes are already underway, but the complete transition to Central Elementary will take 12 months.